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Sunak's immigration plan: old failures, dangerous new rhetoric

The five-point plan to combat illegal migration is a desperate tangle of half-truths draped mostly over reheated old policies. The only potential for change it holds is for the worse. 

December 17 2022, 13.04pm

Rishi Sunak’s five point immigration speech on Tuesday was a disgraceful exercise in shallow demagoguery - but offered little that hasn't been tried before and only made things worse. 

The British Prime Minister complained that refugees hardly ever flee directly from their home countries to the UK. Yet he forgot to mention the reason: the penalties his Government imposes on airlines and ferries who bring refugees to the UK.

Referring to 100 million displaced people –half of whom, incidentally, live in their own countries - Sunak claimed the world is different now from when the 1951 Geneva Convention was drafted. But the aftermath of World War II saw 40 million displaced in Europe alone, many walking, often ‘illegally’, across borders to reach a place where family or connections might help them start again. The authors of international laws understood that people fleeing persecution and war cross borders without permission and want lasting safety. They barred states from punishing refugees for illegal entry, as long as they present themselves promptly - as those crossing the Channel do.

Sunak argued that his central principle was fairness. He didn’t mention that the UK takes only a tiny fraction of its ‘fair’ share of the world’s refugees. Of the 50 million refugees and others displaced to a foreign country, 10 million are hosted by just five countries: Turkey, Colombia, Uganda, Pakistan and Germany, the last of which alone hosts 1.3 million. In the five years to 2021, the UK granted 76,000 people permission to stay as refugees or similar. In the UK, perhaps 1 person in 400 is a refugee or asylum-seeker. In Lebanon, that figure is 1 in 8.

Unsurprisingly, Sunak’s ragbag of proposals to address supposed ‘new’ challenges were – mostly - the same old responses from recent decades, none of which have been shown to achieve even the Government’s own anti-migrant objectives. Co-operation with France for more staff and technology in the Channel? Announced repeatedly, for example in the ‘Sandhurst Treaty’ almost 5 years ago. More raids on illegal working? There’s no evidence they make a difference. Asylum-seekers, who Ministers will not let work to support themselves, to be accommodated in old barracks? Priti Patel’s idea, which she unlawfully pushed through despite known breaches of fire and Covid rules.

More dangerously, Sunak objected to the rate at which UK decision-makers accept Albania is unsafe for some refugees, comparing that unfavourably with some EU states. Yet experts studying Albania consider the police there are often incapable of protecting people forced into prostitution, or those targetted in blood feuds. The Prime Minister’s passionate intervention on what should be calm, fact-based assessments of individual claims looks worryingly like trying to lean on Home Office decision-makers and even judges.

But the idea that Ministers can deem a country ‘safe’ for asylum-seekers is not new; nor are his other proposals, like restricting rights of appeal and making it even harder for victims of trafficking to prove their case. Since the 1980s, Home Secretaries have blamed migrant access to justice for their own failings. Appeal rights – created to be fast and accessible - have been restricted or revoked, pushing applicants to complicated judicial review instead. Judicial review procedures are undermined by Home Office officials refusing to engage in pre-action correspondence and ignoring duties of openness.

Sunak’s speech contained one small seed of hope for rational policy-making. Acknowledging the massive delays in Home Office decision-making, which lead to thousands of asylum-seekers waiting many years to be recognised as refugees, he claimed the Home Office will simplify its processes and deal with claims in days or weeks. He even mentioned a return to country specialist asylum-decision makers, a smart practice ended years ago. While most of his proposals seem to come from the Home Office’s dominant hardline faction, the express recognition that decision-making processes are too complex might herald a genuinely faster, fairer system. On a proper approach, most asylum claims are easy to decide fairly, with only a small minority requiring the kind of lengthy and detailed questioning that British officials currently routinely use.

Sadly, though, Sunak’s plan to speed up decisions might prove to be little more than an attempt to reduce numbers of positive refugee decisions by cutting off real opportunities for applicants to make their case. The Home Office’s “detained fast-track” worked that way, keeping applicants locked up and deciding their cases so quickly and cynically that almost every appeal was dismissed. Yet, by the time the courts declared the fast-track fundamentally unfair, the Home Office had become unable to remove the detained applicants in half the cases the Government had won, releasing them instead, usually for their cases to be reconsidered on new evidence. That system was not only unfair, but enormously wasteful of resources.

Aside from promises of faster decisions, Sunak’s speech failed to rise to the challenges he described. While countries like Poland and Colombia rightly allow millions to cross their borders without visas, Sunak wants to make it even harder for a relatively tiny number of refugees to reach the UK. Without Britain’s anti-refugee laws, asylum-seekers would fly direct to the UK, arriving safely and legally to have their claims considered. It is Sunak’s policies which drive them instead to take dangerous routes and use their savings to pay off smugglers.


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